We’ve teamed up with Wisconsin Cheese for an interview mini-series called Meet the Cheesemakers, featuring a sampling of the state’s finest makers and their award-winning creations.
I’ve been surrounded by women with a knack for cooking for as long as I can remember. My mom is a chef and caterer, and while her mother wasn’t exactly a gourmand (she loved a canned vegetable moment), Granbobbie made some really amazing dishes in her time, including her famous potato salad. On my dad’s side, I have an aunt who’s been responsible for the Thanksgiving sweet potatoes since before I was born—to be clear, they’re about 50 percent sweet potato, and the rest of the recipe is essentially butter and sugar. I’m told my dad’s mom, my Bestemama, could make a mean batch of lefse that she served with butter and jam. These women shaped me and my sister, and today we carry on their love for cooking in our own homes.
Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson of Sartori Cheese also grew up surrounded by women with a passion for food. As a third-generation cheesemaker, her parents and grandparents influenced the way she thought about dairy from an early age. Most of the produce the family ate was grown by her mom, in two large gardens on their farm. Without the matriarchs in her family, it’s possible that this Master Cheesemaker could’ve ended up in another line of work entirely—and the same could be said for me. I sat down with Pam to chat about Wisconsin’s cheesemaking community, Sartori’s incredible lineup of cheeses, and the importance of mentorship in the dairy industry.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you tell me who you are, what you do, and where you work?
PAM HODGSON: I’m Pam Hodgson, and I’m a Master Cheesemaker at Sartori Cheese in Plymouth, Wisconsin.
MT: What does it mean to be a Wisconsin Cheesemaker?
PH: Here in Wisconsin, we take dairy very seriously—our license plates read “America’s Dairyland.” As a Wisconsin cheesemaker, I’m both the beneficiary and the carrier of that tradition, and I try to always bring out the Wisconsin goodness in every pound of cheese that we make. [Dairy is] our largest agricultural pursuit, and we have great industry support. Our farms have the best large animal veterinarians. They have soil scientists, they have nutritionists. The Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisc. has great support to help [the farmers] produce the highest quality milk, and we have great support in order to make the highest quality cheese. For me, as a cheesemaker, I feel incredibly fortunate. When I go to conferences like [the American Cheese Society conference] I get to talk with a lot of really talented cheesemakers, but none of them have the support that we have here in Wisconsin.
MT: Did you always know that cheese would be your path?
PH: I really didn’t plan on becoming a cheesemaker, but I feel very fortunate that this path found me. When I was growing up, my first career goal was to be a dairy farmer like my parents. Years later, when my husband and I were beginner farmers and needed a little more income to fuel the dream, there was an opening at a local cheese plant. I applied for a quality assurance position because it was good, honest work. On paper, I might not have been the most qualified candidate, but I was offered the job because I believed that the plant manager saw something in me. I think he was right because once I got into the plant and got working there, I just thrived. I loved the process. I loved the people. I loved how there was always something going on that would challenge me either physically or intellectually. Cheesemaking really engages your whole self because, as cheesemakers, we let the milk and the cheese tell us when it’s time to go to the next step. It’s a neat process, and I fell in love with it.
MT: There are only two female Master Cheesemakers in the world and you’re one of them—what’s that like?
PH: When I started in the dairy industry in 1991, it was very male dominated. I actually interviewed [for my cheese plant job] while I was pregnant with our first child. My mom was really supportive, and I couldn’t have done it in the early days without her. I’d have problems in the plant where I needed to stay, and I’d call her and ask her if she could pick up the kids, and she did. There were times when I needed to work at night because I knew something wasn’t right [with the cheese], so the kids slept over at Grandma’s. I really could not have done it without her.
I’m optimistic that the number [of female Master Cheesemakers] will soon grow. I’m basing that on [the fact that] right now in Wisconsin, there are many women who are making outstanding cheeses, including Erin Radtke here at Sartori. She’ll be eligible to apply starting January 1. She’s an outstanding cheesemaker, and I’m excited and looking forward to the day where she becomes a certified master.
MT: I’ve heard that mentorship is a big part of the Master Cheesemaker program, and it seems like it’s important to Sartori as well. Who have your mentors been in the dairy industry?
PH: Yeah. When a person becomes certified, they have an opportunity to name their mentors. In 2013, when that opportunity came up for me, I really struggled because coming up in the cheese industry, I learned from [a lot of] really great people, names that everybody in the industry knows. But I also learned just as much—or more—from men and women who quietly did their job to the best of their ability. At the end of the day, I chose my parents, Henry and the late Marilyn Umstead, as my mentors because they taught me to always keep learning and to always appreciate everyone, especially those who society might look past.
In terms of mentoring [at Sartori], I think it’s important to remember that it’s a two-way [street]. I know I learn a whole lot [from the people I mentor], and I hope they learn something, too. I’ve worked very, very hard in the last 30 years to really build my knowledge base, and to do [mentorship] right, I need to pass on that knowledge because that’s part of the Wisconsin cheesemaker tradition. If I do this right by teaching people what I know, then [eventually] they’re going to know more than I do because they’re going to have their experiences and what they’ve figured out on their own, too. So it’s very humbling, but it is how it should be done.
MT: What makes Sartori cheeses so uniquely Wisconsin?
PH: My hope is that when someone tries a Sartori cheese, they can taste Wisconsin and the care that our family farms have put [into it]—not only by taking care of their animals, but also by taking care of the land that grew the crops that fed the animals that they milked. We’re very committed to creating Wisconsin Originals [here]. Cheesemaking is ancient, [going] back thousands and thousands of years. At Sartori, we’re cheesemakers first. We want to create new originals that will wow and delight our patrons, [like] our Merlot BellaVitano. We soak that in vats of Merlot wine, then when the cheeses have been in there long enough, we pull the wheel out, let it dry in a rack, and when it’s ready, we package it. That cheese has fruity Merlot notes that complement the BellaVitano cheese itself, which is savory with lots of cooked dairy notes. It’s really a wonderful cheese.
When I started in the Wisconsin dairy industry in the ‘90s, it seemed so big, like [there were] all these people, and I didn’t know anybody. But then as I got going in it, I [realized] that it really is a close community. We work hard, but we play harder. It’s a neat culture.
What’s your favorite type of Sartori Cheese? Tell us in the comments below!
Our friends at Wisconsin Cheese are committed to showcasing all the amazing cheeses the state has to offer—and there’s a lot of them. Wisconsin has more flavors, varieties, and styles of cheese than anywhere else in the world. From Italian classics like Parmesan and ricotta to Wisconsin Originals like colby and muenster, this cheese-obsessed state has a little something for everyone. Find out more about Wisconsin Cheese by visiting their site.